A Kinder, Gentler Bust

The side of a NYPD police cruiser bears the letters CPR, for Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.  It’s aspirational at best, and a cynical marketing ploy at worst. In any event, it is not something to point out when an interaction with police doesn’t go as well as one would hope.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio has decided that his new (and Giuliani’s old) police commissioner should commence a new initiative to make New York’s Finest more user-friendly. Via Newsday:

The NYPD’s encounters with the public will soon begin with a polite introduction and end “on a positive note” under a new “Seven Steps to Positive Community Interactions” curriculum announced Thursday by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner William J. Bratton.

It will start with politeness training in the academy, and work its way through the precincts with in-services.  The cynical will immediately joke that an interaction will begin with “Sir, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the business end of my baton,” and conclude with, “don’t worry, the wound will heal eventually.”  But why be so cynical. given the sincerity of the department’s explanation?

“Cops get in more trouble with their mouths than they do with any of the tools we give them — clubs, guns,” Bratton said. “We injure very few people in this city making arrests . . . but we do tend to injure an awful lot of people through our language, and so the idea is to begin to formulate new language for all of our officers that might help to defuse a situation rather than escalate it.”

Much as this may sound like a need for the police version of “sticks and stones,” it’s not. Bratton misapprehends the problem when he says “we tend to injure an awful lot of people through our language.”  Injure isn’t the right word. The word he is looking for is “offend.”  Maybe “outrage.”

Police often use language that is meant, on their end, to seize command of a situation, which they’re trained is necessary to perform their duty.  Many use words that shock, often cursing at people for no apparent reason.  This may be deliberate at times, but when it becomes commonplace in the performance of duty, it comes out with mindless frequency.  It’s no way to talk to someone unless the plan is to escalate tension and goad someone to anger.

Language is important.  We can use words to make a situation worse or better, to defuse tension or to bring a situation to a boil.  The question is which one they want to accomplish, or whether they aren’t thinking enough to have a goal in mind.

The fact remains that in better neighborhoods, where police anticipate locals to be less hostile, less criminal, and more capable of addressing offensive conduct, police tend to be reasonably polite and helpful.  As a guy on the street in Manhattan with a question, I’ve chatted regularly with cops and found them to be generally helpful and polite.  I’ve never had a cop give me any trouble or speak harshly to me. But then, I’m an old white guy, generally well-dressed and non-threatening. That’s how guys like me are treated.

The experience in what police perceive as not-as-nice neighborhoods, say Harlem or Washington Heights, by the locals tends to be a world apart. It’s not that the locals are threatening, but they reflect a different culture and they receive a different culture in return.

The language on the street tends to be less mitigated, often defensive as a result of past experience, and consequently less compliant in tone and word. This could be easily diffused by the police, if they choose to do so. But since politeness is viewed as weakness, by both sides, it rarely happens.

There are so many interactions that would conclude without any issue if the cops decided not to make an issue of it. They have the upper hand in these encounters, because they have the gun and the authority to make a person’s life miserable if that’s what they want to do. That means they also have the ability to diffuse a tense moment with a softer approach.

Is this in their interest? If they need to crank up their CompStat numbers, then generating petty offenses is in their self-interest. They have the ability to create problems with language, knowing that calling someone a name right off the top is going to begin an encounter with a bad attitude, and that it will only get worse from there. Unless the NYPD lets go of its gimmicks, proving efficacy through self-generated phony numbers, there is no chance that politeness training will have a chance.

But let’s be less cynical, for a moment, and recognize that words can calm as well as inflame, and the NYPD wants to tone down the rhetoric and end its street war with black and Hispanic young men uptown that follows the millions of “stop and frisks” that have characterized the nature of encounters over the past decade. Would it work? The comments at PoliceOne offer some insight:

So basically he wants them to be p*ssys? Turn in your gun gents here is a tampon to replce it. Also we traded in your units for pink prius. Have fun and be nice.

Politeness is “unmanly,” and the theme Is reiterated here:

After successful completion of the training each officer is issued pretty pink panties with a black lacy bow

Less threatened, but similarly troubling is the “you first” approach:

So the people putting this great idea have either never been a police officer or haven’t been out in the streets in the mud, the blood and the beer since Nixon was in office. Maybe the people should stop for one second and think if you give respect you will generally get it back from officers but of course not it must be the officers fault what a joke this is going to be.

But then, there are a surprising number of reactions like this:

A lot of officers, esp. the old timers, think being polite and weakness are both the same. Polite is not a sign of weakness. Like most said, I am nice until the person I am dealing with goes haywire. Then I loose my mind. Being rude for no reason, other than to push a badge on someone is no real police officer. Its being a bully and a prick. No one like either of the 2. Be nice, be fair and treat with respect until the person disrespects the officer. Lay the law to them in those cases.

And this:

What ever happened to treat people as you wish you would be treated in the same circumstances? But once they act stupid, the cuffs go on and discussion ends.

And this:

Sometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves who it is that we work for.
Sometimes, that’s the hardest part of this job.

Not that changing the culture of cops, even to the extent of something as basic as normal human interaction, is easy, but it was surprising to find that many cops would prefer not to have every encounter be hostile,  to create a threat when none need exist.  Maybe this is something that more cops want than one would suspect?

So is there any hope that politeness training has a chance of altering the nature of encounters with police in the Big Apple?  My gut reaction is fuggedaboutit, but the de-escalation of tension on the street through more polite choice of language designed to avoid creating conflict where none need exist is consistent with the First Rule of Policing. Maybe there’s a chance.